Bogota is not a 'love at first sight' kind of city. Sitting atop a mountain plateau at around 2,600m above sea level, Colombia's capital lacks the pleasant climate found in the rest of the country and is often grey and overcast.
With 9m residents -- only Mexico City, Sao Paulo and a handful of other cities are larger than it in Latin America -- the capital is on the large side and poor urban planning means it regularly gets snarled up with traffic. Though crime rates here are, in fact, much lower than Colombia's other cities, this doesn't stop you feeling from distinctly less secure than you will in the tourist areas of, say, Medellin.
Stay a little longer and you'll begin to appreciate the city's charms
Stay a little longer and you'll begin to appreciate the city's charms. Unlike some other central Colombian cities, Bogota has been long exposed to international influences and trade, helping its development as a cosmopolitan metropolis offering diversity of culture, food and population. Bogota's culture offering is unrivaled in Colombia, with a wide variety of art galleries, museums and theaters, as well as a vibrant Latin and alternative music scene.
History and architecture buffs will also be tempted by the array of colonial era buildings and squares, clustered around the Candelaria district. Moreover, and unusually for a Latin American capital, Bogota is home to numerous public parks and green spaces, providing a pleasant escape from the hectic city center. These attractions don't make the city absolutely unmissable, but your Colombia travel itinerary certainly would not suffer from including a day or two here.
Get Your Bearings
Bogota is made up of 20 districts, with marked differences between them. Broadly speaking, the northern part of the city is the richest and is home to the most upmarket entertainment venues, hotels and company offices. The downtown area (known locally as El Centro) is where much of the historic buildings, museums and art galleries are.
The city's larger sports venues, parks and other sites for outdoor pursuits stretch out to the west, around the same area as the international airport (El Dorado). The south is poorer and feels less secure than the north, though you're unlikely to wander into these areas by accident. The southern districts, which include large sections of informal housing, are where many of those displaced by violence between the 1980s and early 2000s now reside.
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Large differences between districts, you'll need to visit several to get a feel of the city
Given the large differences between districts, you'll need to visit several to get a feel of the city. We recommend you start with some of these:
• La Candelaria: Founded in the 16th century by the Spanish conquistadores, La Candelaria is where you'll find Bogota’s main historic buildings. This area houses all major government and judicial buildings, and most of the architecture retains a colonial flavor. It is also the undisputed center for backpackers given the high concentration of hostels and other budget accommodation here.
• Usaquen: Another historic neighborhood, located in the far north of Bogota. The area combines traditional and historic attractions with more modern features, including a number of decent bars and restaurants.
• Chapinero: The most upmarket district of the city, containing several parks, and abundant dining, shopping and drinking venues. Chapinero is home to the Parque 93, where the city's richest go to drink and dance.
• El Salitre: Slightly further out of the city center, El Salitre is the site of Bogota’s major outdoor and large sporting venues, such as the Simon Bolivar park and the Olympic Watersports Complex.
What to See and Do
A great introductory activity is to travel to the top of Cerro de Monserrate, a large hill located at an altitude of 3,150m (about 500m higher than the rest of Bogota). You can head up here via the cable car or, if you're feeling energetic and adjusted to the altitude, by foot along the signed path. At the top of the Cerro, you'll find not only excellent views over the city, but also the Santuario del Señor Caido, a traditional pilgrimage destination, and a few shops and restaurants selling Colombian food and handicrafts. At the bottom of Monserrate is the Quinta de Bolivar, a small museum dedicated to Colombia's independence hero, Simon Bolivar, where his clothes and sword are on display.
Old Town and Museums
Bogota's main historic and colonial center is the Candelaria neighborhood. In the lower part of La Candelaria, around Plaza de Bolivar, are the president’s office and presidential residence, the congressional buildings, Supreme Court and Bogota’s mayoral residence. Some of these sites, for example the Palacio de Nariño (the presidential residence), offer tours several days week. You'll also find a number of important churches, for example Iglesia de la Concepción, and museums such as the Francisco José de Caldas Museum House and the Museum of Arts and Popular Traditions, in this area. Despite the heavy police presence, La Candelaria gets unsavory at night so watch out for your belongings.
La Candelaria gets unsavory at night so watch out for your belongings
One of La Candelaria's most famous museums is the Museo del Oro (Gold Museum), which features approximately 35,000 gold pieces from the pre-columbine era, along with some 30,000 other artifacts including shells, rocks, ceramic pieces and bones. If you've not satisfied your thirst for natural resource-related exhibitions here, then head on to the Museo Internacional de la Esmeralda (International Gem Museum), where you'll find over 3,500 gems and other precious stones.
The Botero Museum boasts over 120 works by the Colombian artist and sculpture, as well as an additional 80 or so works by other international artists (donated from Botero’s personal collection). The National Museum is also worth visiting. It is the oldest in Colombia and holds around 2,500 art works in 17 exhibition halls. Entrance to most of the above museums and cultural attractions usually involves a nominal fee of around 3,000 COP. However, in the last Sunday of every month, about 35 of them open their doors to visitors for free.
Aside from the museums, Bogota is home to numerous other cultural sites and theaters. The Teatro Mayor Julio Mario Santo Domingo is a complex of theaters which has regular and high quality performances of opera, musicals, plays, concerts and classical ballet. It has a capacity of over 1,300 and a large area in front of the stage for a live orchestra. Teatro Colon, is another important theater which was founded in the late 19th century. The Media Torta Cultural Center, was the first open air theater in Bogota, and still gives regular, free performances.
In addition to the historic buildings and cultural attractions, the capital has a large number of public green spaces. One of the most expansive of these is the Parque Metropolitano Simon Bolivar. This complex of parks, located near the Universidad Nacional de Colombia, is connected by a series of cycle and footpaths and is a pleasant place for a stroll or to relax. The Salitre Mágico Park and Cici Aquapark are also located here, offering a variety of fairground style rides, small roller-coasters and swimming pools, slides and other water-based attractions.
The Salitre Mágico Park offers fairground style rides, small roller-coasters, swimming pools and slides
The Jose Celestino Mutis Botanical Garden is another good spot to visit, with its 20 hectares featuring representations of Colombia’s various natural habitats. In Parque Metropolitano Timiza, in the south of the city, visitors can hire a small boat and go for a short trip of the lake there. Parque Nacional Olaya Herrera is a vast space housing a wide variety of sporting facilities such as football, volleyball and basketball courts. On Sunday mornings, many major highways in the city are closed to traffic for a few hours to allow cyclists, roller-bladers and pedestrians free reign there. The network is on a huge scale; with some 300km available in the event, known as the Ciclovía.
Shopping opportunities in the capital are ample, with expansive malls catering for every budget. Centro Mayor is the city’s (and Colombia’s) largest and is located in the south of Bogota. Other major commercial centers include Centro Commercial Santafé, Salitre Plaza, and Centro Commercial Gran Estación. At the cheaper end of the spectrum are the various flea markets held in the city every Sunday. Particularly well stocked examples are those in San Alejo and Usaquen, where you can find all manner of antiques and artisan products, vinyl discs, and second hand goods.
Where to Stay
The majority of budget options are located in and around La Candelaria. This is the area closest to the major museums and historical buildings, but which is rather dirty in parts and can feel a little insecure in the evenings. Some of the low to mid-range hotels are also in this area or in the more upmarket Chapinero to the north. Northern Bogota is where almost all the high-end options are. This area has a more pleasant atmosphere than does La Candelaria - particularly in the evenings when its restaurants and bars fill up – but is much more expensive and is located further away from many of the main sights.
Rising demand for accommodation in the city mean that it is advisable to book a place to stay before arrival. This applies as much to hostels and budget accommodation as it does to the more luxury options. Many of the backpacker favorites get busy especially round weekends and at times of cultural events. Trekking up and down the steep cobbled streets of the Candelaria district to ask about rooms at the various hostels does not serve as the ideal introduction to the city. Bogota is a large, and not always easily navigable, city so check carefully the location of your hotel before booking.
Bogota’s top-end accommodation offering is not yet world class, but the city’s long history of receiving business visitors means a decent level and variety of spots are still available. The options Moreover, the trend towards rapid expansion of the capital’s accommodation portfolio continues to date, driven both by government granted tax breaks and the ascendancy of Colombia as a tourist destination.
Among the most luxurious of Bogota’s high-end hotels is the five-star B.O.G. Hotel located in the north of the city within a couple minutes’ walk of Zona T. B.O.G. offers sleek designer rooms and a wealth of excellent facilities and restaurants, but is one of the city’s priciest options at over US$ 300 per night. Similarly decadent, and similarly priced, is the nearby JW Marriott Hotel. This luxury hotel is also home to one of Bogota’s most celebrated restaurants, La Mina, which is styled on the Salt Cathedral located just outside the city.
Marginally cheaper is the Bogota Hilton, which opened in 2012, and the Hotel Cabrera Imperial, which offers light and elegantly furnished rooms just to the north of the above options. The Charleston Casa Medina, in the Zona G district, offers a slightly different experience; a boutique hotel housed within a colonial-era building which has received recognition by Colombia’s Culture Ministry. The Radisson Royal Hotel, also in this price category, offers excellent views of Bogota and features a distinctive winding marble staircase in the lobby. The Click-Clack Hotel in Parque 93 is a slightly different style hotel, offering luxury decor but with a host of designer touches and design twists which set it apart from the other hotels in the district.
Outside of northern Bogota, a good bet in the mid-high end accommodation range is 3 Hotel de la Opera, located in the historic La Candelaria district. This Art Deco hotel dates back to the early 19th century and great attention to has been paid to every aspect of its design. Guests regularly comment on the high quality service of the hotel, which helped it win the 2013 Traveler's Choice award on TripAdvisor.
Transport To and Around Bogota
Bogota's major mass transit system is the Transmilenio, which covers most of the city and is the best ways to get around. The Transmilenio is a bus network designed to be similar to a metro system in that vehicles have their own dedicated lanes and have large formalized stations and interchanges. In most (but not all) parts of the network, Transmilenio lanes are physically separated from the rest of the traffic, permitting more rapid transit around the city.
Transmilenio lanes are physically separated from the rest of the traffic, permitting more rapid transit around the city
A single journey on the Transmilenio will cost around 1,500 COP, depending on the route and time of travel. The most convenient, and potentially also most cost efficient, way to travel is using a tullave top-up card. This costs 3,000 COP and is available for sale at stations along the main roads calle 10 and calle 26. With this card you can skip lengthy queues for buying individual journey tickets and may also receive discounts on your journey.
Though the Transmilenio may be quicker than normal buses, it can take a little while to get to grips with the myriad of complex interchanges and routes available. Information and assistance available in the stations, particularly in the hectic rush hour, is limited so it is recommended that you plan your journeys in advance before travelling. This can be done online, or alternatively by checking with locals.
Getting To and From Bogota
Bogota has the best transport connections to destinations inside and outside of the country. From El Dorado airport, hundreds of flights leave daily to other parts of Latin America and the Caribbean, Europe and North America. Several operators also run routes to Medellin, Cali, Cartagena and a large number of other local destinations. If flying to Medellin, bear in mind that the majority of flights from Bogota will take you to the main airport at Rio Negro, about 45 minutes outside the city center. Flying with Satena enables you to arrive at the smaller Enrique Olaya Herrera, located in the heart of Medellin. Flights with this airline are likely to be a bit more expensive than rival operators, however.
The other main transport option is via bus. These leave the capital to all other cities in Colombia, both during the day and throughout the night. There are two major terminals, the largest of which is the central terminal (terminal de transportes) located in Ciudad Salitre. Approximately 85 bus companies operate services from this spot, covering the majority of destinations in the country, including those along the Caribbean coast. The smaller southern terminal (terminal del sur), located near Bosa on the southern highway, principally services destinations in Cundinamarca, but also runs some routes to Cali and the Coffee Region. Journey times for a few popular routes include: Medellin 8-10 hours, Cali 10 hours and Cartagena 18-22 hours.
As a large, diverse city, the variety of nightlife options in Bogota is unrivalled in Colombia. Whereas cities such as Cali and Medellin probably have the edge over the capital in terms of Latin music and salsa clubs, there are certainly a great deal more...